Pentax K-01 Review
It's a bird, it's a plane—no, it's a weird designer camera.
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"Have you met with Pentax yet?" our friend and fellow tech journalist asked cheerily. We hadn't, but were en route at the time. He advised us not to laugh...
We weren't compelled to giggle when the Pentax representative later unveiled the new Pentax K-01, but we definitely found ourselves... squinting at it. It looks odd. That was six months ago, at CES 2012. Since then, we've witnessed some interesting public reception, some rumors of an extremely capable image sensor, some encouraging sample photos, and now here we are, ready for the full review.
We have Marc Newson to thank for the K-01's look. He's a very famous industrial designer known for his style of furniture, jewelry, clothing, and even airplanes. This is Newson's first camera, and the result of a ground-up collaboration between he and the engineers at Pentax. We have our own opinions about the design, but this isn't a furniture review. We've found that purely as a device for taking pictures, the Pentax K-01 shouldn't be overlooked.
Design & Usability
Staring at the K-01 is arguably more enjoyable than shooting with it.
Given all of Marc Newson's success, we figure there are plenty of consumers who will relish the K-01's unique appearance, but the fact is, this design ignores handling. We often pejoratively refer to cameras as "brick-like," but the K-01 takes this to a whole new level. The body is enormous for a mirrorless camera. In fact, when we stop to think about it, Pentax actually could've fit a mirror inside the bulky frame. Despite rubberized surfaces and plenty of space, the absence of a thumb rest and the smooth rear panel make everything less comfortable. In general, the simple, experimental button layout is a bit befuddling. Dials feel great though and an Info button opens a succinct Quick menu. This is fortunate, because the main menu is unintuitive, with its horizontal, tabbed layout and strange navigation. For example, certain options may be sub-settings of something else, even if that "something" seems unrelated to the option you're looking for.
On the top plate are two colored buttons. The green button is patently useless, but can be customized if you like, while the red button is best as a video recording hotkey, though it too may be customized. It's here that we begin to wonder how much feedback Pentax got from actual photographers. There's simply no way to shoot with a normal hand position and still operate the green button in its location. Short of putting the button on the bottom of the camera, we don't see how it could've been in a more uncomfortable spot.
On a high note, the K-01 is kitted with one of the coolest lenses we've ever seen—a 40mm pancake with a profile no wider than your thumb. Plus, a fully mechanical manual focus ring encircles the outside edge of the barrel. A gorgeous nine blade aperture moderates the flow of light, but unfortunately the tiny lens cap gets our vote for "accessory you're most likely to lose." The image sensor is APS-C sized, just like Pentax's flagship K-5. Without any viewfinder, framing is left to the rear LCD, which is bright, but difficult to view at times due to glare—even indoors. Output terminals have flimsy rubber coverings and, worst of all, they're annoying. The rubber surface lid won't close easily, so you'll need to fiddle with it every time you remove the memory card or attach a cable.
A pile of perks
Never one to skimp on extra features, Pentax includes a slew of scene modes, digital filters, and video capabilities on the K-01. A fully automatic "green" mode is on hand, but Pentax has opted not to lock out most menu settings, leaving much control in the hands of the user. This will slightly complicate things for a novice. A full-size hardware mode dial includes "PASM" modes and numerous others, such as dedicated HDR stops. Shutter, aperture, and ISO are of course fully customizable and while there are plenty of autofocus methods, like face detection and tracking, the real fun is manual focus; a thin focus ring moves the glass mechanically for excellent precision. 11 color modes include basics like Vibrant and Muted, as well as a few more interesting ones like Radiant, which emphasizes yellows and blues. Cross Processing mixes up color channels deliberately, and may even be set to random, and digital filters are separated from scene modes, allowing users to actually combine the two. Want to use Pet mode with color extract? Go for it.
The K-01 also features continuous shooting modes, self-timers, interval shooting, and 19 scene modes. Video shooting is a bit light on controls, but sufficient for medium-duty recording. It maxes out at 1080p and offers shutter speed adjustment, manual focus, aperture control, and ISO control, even during shooting. Quality is sharp, but not always smooth, but perks like in-camera video editing and excellent low light performance make this feature competitive. Finally, four aspect ratios and four resolutions are on hand, including RAW, as well as a 500-shot battery and a pop-up flash with an attractive cast. Suffice it to say, this baby's feature-rich.
The K-01 is not afraid to focus in the dark, and its images are razor sharp.
The K-01 produces some of the most attractive images we've seen so far this year. Look forward to great shots in almost any situation. This camera is just shy of our best all-time results. What a season this has been for sharpness. Had we reviewed the K-01 a few weeks ago, it would've been the sharpest camera we've ever tested. Unfortunately for Pentax, that distinction went to the Fujifilm X-Pro1, and its selection of outstanding prime lenses. But the K-01 comes in at a respectable 2nd place, thanks to its prime kit lens.
In terms of color, the K-01 was better than average, but worse than what we hoped for. Color accuracy is above average, but not by much. Happily though, Pentax exhibits self-control with a moderate, predictable noise reduction algorithm. The K-01's ISO sensitivities start at 100 and stretch all the way to 25,600. It's not every camera that can go this far. Using the strongest noise reduction, noise is minimal even at ISO 6400, and tolerable at ISO 25600—impressive to say the least. In fact, turn noise reduction completely off and image noise still won't become particularly distracting until ISO 6400. Additionally, problems with low light focusing are rare, which is a welcome change from the Pentax K-5. For speed, action photographers should note that the K-01 is fast, but not as fast as Pentax claims. In reality, we clocked continuous shooting at just over 5.2 frames per second, and this rate slows considerably when the buffer fills up after 7 shots or so. Speed is further limited by certain menu settings. Activating extras like digital filters or chromatic aberration correction causes shooting speed to plummet and RAW shooting is limited to 1 frame per second.
Don't judge a camera by its weird, weird cover.
Is it unique...or just weird? Futuristic...or toyish? Bold...or simply befuddling? Whatever the case, if you find yourself attracted to the K-01 based solely on its forward-thinking exterior design, then you'll be happy to know that underneath it all is a rather excellent camera.
Marc Newson's camera design bucks nearly every imaging trend. We can hardly blame Pentax for refusing to fire conventional weapons in the war of mirrorless cameras, but the K-01's design is a gimmick, in the truest sense of the word. We are therefore not interested in commenting on the aesthetics, but we will say that the body is bulky and difficult to handle. In terms of delivering a quality image, however, the K-01 succeeds on almost every level—even in dim light. Resolution of detail is the camera's greatest strength. Thanks to an excellent APS-C image sensor and a high quality kit lens, the K-01 achieved the second-best sharpness score we've ever recorded. Speaking of the kit lens, it's a marvel of engineering: a 40mm pancake, no wider than your thumb, and equipped with a manual mechanical focus ring. More than this, you'll find a Pentax "K" lens mount on the camera, meaning the K-01 is compatible with just about every lens Pentax has ever produced. We just wish this Pentax had a viewfinder and a clearer control layout.
We met the Pentax K-01 with skepticism, but ultimately stood corrected. Fans of the aesthetic will be more than satisfied with performance under the hood. The capabilities of this camera are on equal footing with Pentax's top consumer DSLR, the K-5, and with a $900 MSRP (and a far lower street price), we'd actually consider the K-01 a decent deal. If you appreciate this model's design, or can at least put up with it, the K-01 comes highly recommended.
The K-01's weird, minimal body instilled us with little confidence as to its capabilities, but it surprised us in the lab. This camera produces some of the most attractive images we've seen so far this year. Sharpness scores were off the chart, noise reduction is moderated, and maximum dynamic range is just over 7 full stops. Look forward to great shots in almost any situation.
What a season this has been for sharpness. Had we reviewed the K-01 a few weeks ago, it would've been the sharpest camera we've ever tested. Unfortunately for Pentax, that distinction now goes to the Fujifilm X-Pro1, and its selection of outstanding prime lenses. But the K-01 comes in at a respectable 2nd place, thanks to its prime kit lens.
Although the end-result was mathematically similar, the way the K-01 achieved such a sky-high score was quite different from the X-Pro1's method. While the Fujifilm produced consistent detail throughout the entire frame, the K-01 has peaks and valleys. There aren't any terribly blurry regions of a shot from the K-01, but the center of the frame is treated to incredible levels of detail, at times in excess of 3500 LW/PH at MTF50. Some of this is due to artificial over-sharpening, which can distract, but the results are impressive nonetheless. Edges, by comparison, came in at an average of under 1500 LW/PH.
All's quiet on the K-01 front.
Pentax exhibits self-control with this moderate, predictable noise reduction algorithm. This camera does an excellent job keeping distracting image noise below 1.00% through ISO 3200, even with noise reduction software turned completely off. At ISO 6400 and above, noise rates increase exponentially (though this is expected)—up to 3.37% at ISO 25600. By comparison, the sensor only produces 0.40% noise at ISO 100. Once we turned on noise reduction, we found all three levels behaved similarly to the unaided sensor, with moderately aggressive smoothing that gives way to a stronger effect above ISO 3200. Each successive noise reduction setting is evenly more aggressive than the one before, and all of them take action in a very predictable way. Using the strongest noise reduction, it's possible to keep noise below 1.00% even as far up as ISO 6400, with only 1.85% at ISO 25600. These are very impressive figures overall.
The K-01's ISO sensitivities start at 100 and stretch all the way to 25,600. This is a substantial range that many mirrorless competitors simply cannot reach. One convenient feature is the ability to customize the automatic ISO function to meter between 100 and any other sensitivity, including 25,600.
The K-01's impressive dynamic range equals that of the K-5.
At the minimum sensitivity, the K-01 is capable of achieving just over 7 stops of dynamic range. That is just excellent.
Only ISO 100 can reach 7 stops. After that, 6 stops becomes the norm until around ISO 1600. We were very impressed at this camera's ability to retain dynamic range, even far into its ISO spectrum. After ISO 1600, performance drops off more sharply. Only 5 stops are possible at ISO 3200, more like 4 stops at 6400, 2.7 stops at 12800, and finally 1.8 stops at 25600.
These are great results, surpassing even the mighty Pentax K-5. The only comparable camera to post a better score was the Sony NEX-5N, which is part of a model line known for its dynamic range.
We looked for problems with fringing and other distortions, but we didn't find much, happily.
Chromatic aberration is visible in the extreme edges and corners of the frame (as shown in the chart below), but nowhere else. Prime lenses with a fixed zoom ratio often boast this advantage, and this 40mm kit lens is no different. The K-01 is equipped with chromatic aberration correction, however we did not find this feature to be effective.
Distortion isn't too bad. We detected about 0.74% barrel distortion is our resolution test, but this number can be brought down to 0% by activating the K-01's distortion correction feature. Both distortion correction and chromatic aberration correction add extra processing to each shot, so this will slow down continuous burst shooting. For this reason, we left both features off most of the time.